If you’re a new producer or have just started learning music theory, then you may have come across dominant 7, major 7, and minor 7 chords and are wondering what the difference is between them.
Seventh chords are a little more complicated than your basic triads. They’re made up of four notes instead of three and add more harmonic colour to your music. Typically, they’re found in jazz but can be used in any style of music. An overall term for them is ‘extended chords’ and, as a side note, this label can be applied to any chord that contains more than three notes.
In this article, we’ll discuss the differences between all types of seventh piano chords, how to construct them, and how they can be used in your chord progressions.
Dominant 7 vs maj7 vs m7 – What’s The Difference?
All seventh chords are built using tertiary harmony, meaning they’re made from stacks of thirds. This is the same as triads, however, seventh chords take it a step further by adding a note: the seventh. The difference between dominant 7, maj7, and m7 chords is whether the 3rd and 5th of the chord is major or minor.
Let’s see how this works with C7, Cm7, and, Cmaj7 chords.
A dominant seventh chord consists of a root note, major third, perfect fifth, and a minor seventh, or, more simply put, it’s a major chord with a flat 7. The notes in a C dominant seventh chord are C-E-G-Bb and its chord symbol is C7.
Dominant seventh chords are usually built on the fifth (or dominant) scale degree of a key and are used to take you back to the tonic chord, creating a perfect cadence. This is because the chord creates a lot of tension, due to the dissonance made by the tritone between the third and seventh of the chord, and wants to be resolved by returning to the tonic.
A major 7th chord is almost the same, however, instead of a minor seventh, this chord uses a major seventh. So a major 7 chord built on C would include the notes C-E-G-B and its chord symbol would be Cmaj7.
In root position, they’re far less tense than dominant 7th chords and instead sound more romantic and serene, however, they can appear darker when using inversions due to the semi-tone rub between the root and the seventh.
With minor seventh chords, both the third and the fifth of the chord are minor (or flat), so you can think of it as a minor chord with a flat 7. Again, if we build this chord with C as our root, we get the notes C-Eb-G-Bb, with its chord symbol being Cm7.
Min7 chords are less tense than dominant 7ths, but darker than major 7ths and typically sound quite jazzy or funky, depending on context.
What Does The 7 Mean in Chords?
The 7 in a chord is a note that is the 7th degree (from the root note) in your chord’s scale. This means that to find a 7th, you need to count 7 notes up, in the current scale your chord is in. So to get a Cmaj7, you would count 7 notes of the Cmajor scale to find the major 7th.
This is the same for minor7 chords. However, you would use the minor scale, seeing as you want a minor 7th.
Below we’ll explain how to find the seventh in major, minor and dominant 7th chords. To keep things simple we’ll use C as the root of all our chords.
Finding the 7th for Maj7 Chords
To find the 7th of a Cmaj7 chord we first need to look at the notes from the C major scale.
This scale includes the notes: C-D-E-F-G-A-B
If we count up 7 notes in the scale we get note B, which is the major 7th in our Cmaj7 chord. To build the full chord we just need to combine it with a standard C major triad, giving us the chord tones C-E-G-B and our Cmaj7 chord.
Finding the 7th for Min7 Chords
For minor 7th chords, we take the same approach but instead, we need the notes from the C natural minor scale.
These are: C-D-Eb-F-G-Ab-Bb
Again, count up 7 notes in the scale until you reach Bb, the minor 7th of Cmin7. Then, we can build the full chord by adding it to a Cmin triad, giving us the chord tones C-Eb-G-Bb and our Cmin7 chord.
Finding the 7th for Dominant 7th chords
Dominant 7th chords use a flat 7 just like minor seventh chords, so we can find the 7th for these chords in the same way.
However, when building the full chord, remember that minor seventh chords have a minor 7 and a minor third, whereas dominant 7th chords have a minor 7 and a major third. So, the chord tones in our C7 chord would be C-E-G-Bb.
(The Quicker and Easier Way To Find 7ths)
The method above is the way we (and most others) were taught to find sevenths. It’s perfectly valid and gives you the right note, but we believe there’s a much quicker and easy way.
All you need to do is to remember that maj7 chords use major sevenths and min7 chords and dominant 7ths use minor sevenths.
Then, if it’s a major seventh you need just go one semitone below the root of your chord, or, if it’s a minor seventh, go one tone below the root. That will give you your 7th, and if you want to build the full chord in root position, just take that note up an octave and add it to your triad.
One more thing to remember is that your 7th will always be the letter that comes before the letter of your root note, even if it means you have to use a less common enharmonic like Cb or E#. This is because you don’t want to repeat letter names in your chords or scales.
For example, if you want the major 7th of an F#maj7 chord then you’ll need the note E#. Of course, this is an enharmonic equivalent of the note F, which is far simpler to read and more familiar, however, if we write this note as an F rather than an E#, we will have both an F# and a F written in our chord. Again, we don’t want to repeat letter names in our chords or scales and that’s why, in this example, the E# is used.
Is Cmaj7 in The Key of C & Cmin7 in The Key of C minor?
Yes, Cmaj7 is in the key of C as the notes of this chord (C-E-G-B) are all diatonic to C major. We’re going to be using the term ‘diatonic’ a lot from here on, and if you’re not familiar with the term, it simply means that the notes belong naturally to that key/scale.
A Cmin7 chord can be found in the key of C minor for the same reason. Its notes (C-Eb-G-Bb) are all found in the C natural minor scale/are diatonic to the key of C minor.
This applies to all major or minor seventh chords in any key, so, for example, Abmaj7 would be in the key of Ab, and Dm7 would be in the key of D minor, etc.
These are all examples of 7th chords found on the first scale degree, which is called the tonic. However, seventh chords that are the tonic in one key, can appear on different scale degrees in other keys.
Maj7 chords can be found on the first and fourth degrees in major keys, and on the third and sixth degrees in minor keys.
For example, a Cmaj7 chord can also be found on the fourth scale degree in the key of G.
The G major scale includes the notes: G-A-B-C-D-E-F#
As you can see, the fourth note in the scale is C, and the notes E, G, and B also appear, meaning we can build a Cmaj7 chord from the fourth scale degree of this key.
With Min7 chords, they can be found on the first, fourth, and fifth scale degrees of the natural minor scale, and the second, third, and sixth scale degrees of major scales.
For instance, a Cmin7 chord can also be found on the fifth scale degree in the key of F natural minor.
The F natural minor scale is: F-G-Ab-Bb-C-Db-Eb
The fifth note in the scale is C, and the other notes that form a Cmin7 chord (Eb, G, and Bb) are all found in the scale too, allowing us to build this chord from the fifth scale degree of this key.
How To Use 7th Chords in Practise
Now we understand the difference between the main types of seventh chords and how to find the seventh for each chord, let’s look at how we can use them in our chord progressions to add more harmonic flavour and excitement to our tracks.
1. To add more colour to our chords
Let’s say we have this chord progression in the key of C major:
C – F – Dm – G
It works and sounds right, but it’s a bit boring and uninspiring. Luckily, we can easily change that by making each chord a 7th chord.
In a C major scale, the notes C and F are the first and fourth notes, which we learned earlier is where we can build major 7th chords, meaning we can change them to Maj 7ths. The Dm is already a minor chord so that one becomes a minor 7th and the G becomes a dominant chord as it’s the fifth note in the C scale and that’s where dominant chords are built.
Therefore, our new chord progression is:
Cmaj7 – Fmaj7 – Dm7 – G7
This instantly adds more flavour to our chord progression and makes it sound more advanced.
Also, in our original progression, you may have found that the major chords sounded too happy and almost ‘nursery-rhyme’ like. By adding the major 7th we’ve taken away that problem as, in a way, we’re now combining a major and minor chord.
If we look at the notes in a Cmaj7 chord, we can see that the C, E, and G form a C major triad and the E-G-B form an E minor triad, which is the reason why Cmaj7 sounds less bright and happy than a standard C chord.
Don’t forget, that although our chord progression now sounds different, we’re still using the same chords. The only difference is we’ve extended our existing chords by adding an extra note.
2. As non-diatonic chords
We’ve mentioned a lot about how each type of 7th chord can appear diatonically on different scale degrees, but we can take things to another level by using 7th chords outside of the current key, or in other words, by using non-diatonic chords.
Let’s take again our most recent chord progression with the updated 7th chords:
Cmaj7, Fmaj7, Dm7, G7
and spice it up further by changing it to:
Cmaj7, Fmaj7, Dbmaj7, G7
The Dbmaj7 may sound jarring and unusual at first, but it undeniably adds more harmonic interest, and using a trick like this can easily make your chord progressions stand out amongst the more basic ones.
The reason why the Dbmaj7 draws your attention so much is because it’s a non-diatonic chord. The notes in the chord are Db-F-Ab-C, but the Db and Ab don’t belong to the key of C, which is what makes it non-diatonic.
This is just one example of using a non-diatonic chord, but you can use any 7th chord in any key. It may be ‘breaking the rules’ but this is what can make our music more adventurous and different. We would advise, however, not to overuse a technique like this, as it can quickly lose its effect and make things too tonally ambiguous.
Other Types of 7th Chords
A minor/major 7th chord gets its name because it has a minor third and a major seventh. This is the opposite of a dominant 7th chord, which has a major third and a minor seventh, however, this chord is far less common.
It’s perhaps best known as the ‘Bond chord’ as it’s used frequently in the soundtracks to Bond films. Listen to any Bond song and you’ll hear this chord strummed by an electric guitar at the very end.
This chord can be found diatonically as the tonic chord in the harmonic minor scale.
Let’s take a look at this scale with A as our root:
A – B – C – D – E – F – G#
If we start on A and build the rest of the chord by going up in triads, we get:
A – C – E – G#
The A is the root, the C is the minor third, the E is the perfect 5th, and the G# is the major 7th, giving us our AmMaj7 chord.
The diminished 7th chord is probably the darkest and most tense chord you can get, however, it’s also one of the most useful. It can be used as a quick passing chord between other chords that adds more movement and it’s a great way to easily change to a new key. Furthermore, a diminished chord is neither a major or minor chord.
There are two types of diminished 7th chords: the Fully diminished 7th and the Half diminished 7th.
The Fully Diminished 7th Chord
The fully diminished 7th is built using only minor thirds and consists of the root, a minor third, a flat 5, and a diminished 7th. A C fully diminished 7th would have the notes C-Eb-Gb-Bbb and its chord symbol would be C°7. The Bbb is an enharmonic equivalent to the note A, however, the double flat is used because A is the 6th in the C scale, not the 7th.
The fully diminished chord is found diatonically on the 7th degree of a harmonic minor scale. If we take again an A harmonic minor scale, we can go to the 7th degree, which is G#, and build our fully diminished chord using the notes G# – B – D – F.
The Half Diminished 7th Chord
The half-diminished 7th is built with two minor thirds and one major third, giving us the root, a minor third, a flat 5, and a minor 7th. A C half-diminished would have the notes C-Eb-Gb-Bb and its chord symbol would be Cø7. This can also be called a minor 7 flat 5 chord.
This diminished chord is found diatonically on the 7th degree in major keys. So in C major, that would be a B half-diminished 7th chord, which would have the notes B-D-F-A. It’s one of the lesser-used chords in a major key, but don’t avoid it completely as it can be very effective when used to add tension to your music.
More Advanced 7th Chords
We’ve covered the most common and some unusual 7th chords but there are still others that are even more advanced. There are too many to explain all of them in depth so instead, we’ve put together this handy table for you.
|Chord tones with C as root
|Chord symbols with C as root
|Dominant 7th flat 5
|Major 7th flat 5
|Augmented Major 7th
|Augmented Minor 7th
|Diminished Major 7th
The majority of the chords mentioned in this article have had C as their root note, however, our final piece of advice would be to learn each 7th chord on every possible root note. Start in C until you fully understand how they work, and then begin constructing chords on all the other notes. This way, you’ll be able to use 7th chords in any key.
Adam is a TV & Film composer who is an avid music theorist. He plays the Guitar and Piano to an expert level, with over 10 years of experience and classical lessons under his belt. He heads most of the Orchestral Library Review Content and Music Theory Tutorial content on our site. Give Adam any task related to chords, scales, progressions, and composition, and he’ll return an absolutely stellar result. Adam is also a Songwriting graduate from BIMM Institute.